Nature has been the source or inspiration of most new drugs created in the last quarter century, say David Newman and Gordon Cragg who work in the natural products branch of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the USA.
Newman and Cragg reviewed all new drugs approved from January 1981 through June 2006 for all diseases worldwide. The list included 1,184 new drugs for a wide range of conditions.
Only thirty percent of the new drugs were totally synthetic in origin. The other 70% were derived from or similar to chemicals found in nature, according to the researchers. They also believe that the sea and microbes may hold promise for new drugs.
But Norman R. Farnsworth, an Illinois-based professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences, regrets that while considerable research is being undertaken in countries like Japan, India, China and Germany on plant-based drugs, the US itself remains underdeveloped on that score.
The National Cancer Institute itself has tested 35,000 species of higher plants for anticancer activity. While many of these have shown anticancer effects, it is still a long way off before drugs derived from them could be used on humans, says Farnsworth.
He also points out only a handful of plants have been exhaustively studied for their potential value as a source of drugs, despite the dramatic advances made in this century in science and technology.
NCI's Newman and Cragg also concede that much of nature's 'treasure trove of small molecules' remains to be explored.